The Israel-Hamas deal to release hostages and Palestinian prisoners in return for a pause in fighting offers a much-needed humanitarian relief to the 2.3 million people of the Gaza Strip who have been living in unspeakable misery since October 7. According to the deal, clinched in talks mediated by Qatar, Hamas will release 50 civilian hostages while Israel will release 150 Palestinian prisoners. Both sides will also halt fighting for four days. The Israeli government has stated that if Hamas releases more hostages, the pause in fighting could be extended, offering a glimmer of hope for securing a more sustained ceasefire. Hamas captured about 240 hostages during its October 7 cross-border attack in Israel, in which at least 1,200 people were killed. When Israel launched its counterattack the same day, it promised to “crush Hamas”, eliminate security threats from Gaza for good, and free the hostages. In the past six weeks, Israeli attacks have turned Gaza into a graveyard, killing at least 13,000 Palestinians, a vast majority of them women and children. But Israel simultaneously began indirect talks with Hamas seeking to free hostages, which resulted in the current deal.
But this is not enough. What the people of Gaza, who have been bombed, shelled, displaced, and denied essential supplies such as food, fuel and medicines, immediately want is a lasting ceasefire. Israel initially refused to have any talks with “Hamas terrorists” and promised to dismantle the Islamist militant group. Israel’s anger was understandable given the horrors unleashed by Hamas. But in its response, a vengeful Israel is collectively punishing the people of Gaza. Several Israeli Ministers have issued dangerous and repugnant statements, from nuclear threats to welcoming epidemics in southern Gaza. But after six weeks of fighting, Israel is far from achieving its own declared objectives, which raises questions about the effectiveness of its military strategy. It stormed Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, alleging that a Hamas command centre was located beneath it. More than a week since, Israel is yet to produce any credible evidence to back this claim. But the fact that Israel and Hamas have reached a deal suggests that both sides are ready to engage with each other even amidst high decibel propaganda and bloody fighting. They should build on the momentum generated by the deal and extend the pause into a full-fledged ceasefire. That is the only way to release all the hostages, provide lasting relief to the Palestinians, and calm spiralling tensions in West Asia.